Supplement redux: caffeine

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As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

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In the Jockology series on supplements, I’ve left out the one substance that is by far the clearest performance enhancer, as well as being the most widely used and most easily available: caffeine. That’s mainly because I covered that territory in a Jockology column all about caffeine back in September. Still, I’d be remiss not to mention it — especially in light of a solid article about caffeine’s ergogenic effects by Gina Kolata in today’s New York Times.

One point worth mentioning: Kolata doesn’t differentiate between pure caffeine and coffee. It’s true that many athletes drink a cup of coffee before every race or competition — but coffee has a long list of active ingredients that make its effects harder to predict, as University of Guelph researcher Terry Graham told me last fall:

Caffeine, however, is not the same thing as coffee. The only rigorous study directly comparing the effects of caffeine (in pill form) and coffee was performed in Dr. Graham’s lab. To their surprise, his team found that only pure caffeine produced a performance boost, even when the level of caffeine in the bloodstream from coffee was identical.

Other studies have found a performance-enhancing effect from coffee, so Dr. Graham is cautious about overstating his results. What is clear is that the effects of coffee, with its complex mix of bioactive ingredients, are far harder to nail down than the unambiguous effects of pure caffeine.

Bonus supplements: beta-alanine

THANK YOU FOR VISITING SWEATSCIENCE.COM!

As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

***

As promised, we’ll look at a few athletic supplements that didn’t fit into the two-part Jockology series, starting with beta-alanine:

The supplement: Beta-alanine.

Used for: Short-duration maximal exercise.

The claim: The mechanisms responsible for muscle fatigue are still highly controversial, but one factor is thought to be increasing levels of acidity in the muscles. This is particularly relevant for short (one to two minutes) bursts of intense effort. Beta-alanine is taken orally to increase levels of a substance called carnosine in your muscles. Carnosine’s primary function is to buffer the acidity in muscle cells, delaying fatigue and enhancing power. (Another way of buffering the acid is to take baking soda, which has also proven to be effective but can cause diarrhea.)

The evidence: It’s clear from many studies that beta-alanine does help buffer muscle acidity. What’s less clear is how this translates to performance benefits. The short, high-intensity bursts of effort are most relevant to elite athletes in events like the 800-metre run, which lasts just under two minutes, and are less relevant to most recreational athletes. However, an interesting study in the upcoming April issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise shows that beta-alanine can also help sprint performance at the end of a long endurance race. The double-blind study had cyclists take part in a 110-minute simulated race, then do a 10-minute time trial and a 30-second sprint. Those who had received eight weeks of beta-alanine improved their final sprint by 11.4 percent.

The verdict: This supplement fills a specialized niche: only fairly serious competitive athletes are likely to have interest in it. But there’s no denying the appeal of having a little extra gas in the tank for a finishing kick — or the significant mental edge that is gained by believing you have some extra gas left in the tank. Clearly, there’s still more research to be done on things like dosage (the cycling study, for the record, started at 2 grams per day and gradually ramped up to 4 grams per day), but there appears to be a real effect here.

Why an exercise pill will never work

THANK YOU FOR VISITING SWEATSCIENCE.COM!

As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

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On Friday, the second part of my series on athletic supplements will run in the Globe (see the first part here). Over the next few days, I’m going to post some information on other supplements that I couldn’t fit into the newspaper pieces — and believe me, there are plenty more!

Before I do that, though, I wanted to highlight a very interesting paper on “exercise mimetics” that appears in this month’s issue of Nutrition Reviews, by John Hawley (an Australian researcher who is one of the titans of research into nutrition and athletic performance) and John Holloszy. It’s a review of the adaptations within skeletal muscles and organs caused by exercise, trying to determine whether comparable benefits could ever be produced by an “exercise pill.” Martin Gibala, a top-notch research at McMaster University, pointed the paper out to me after reading this passage from my last column:

Last summer, researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California made a splash by announcing an exercise pill that allowed mice to gain the benefits of vigorous exercise – all without setting a paw on their exercise wheels…

Hawley and Holloszy beg to differ. Continue reading “Why an exercise pill will never work”

The Ironman (R) mattress: new frontiers in recovery tech

THANK YOU FOR VISITING SWEATSCIENCE.COM!

As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

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The official Ironman (R) Mattress
The official Ironman (R) Mattress

We all know that sleep is a crucial part of recovery, and recovery is a crucial part of training. The solution: a mattress designed especially for runners and Ironman triathletes, as unveiled in this press release from the Ironman people. What can such a mattress do that normal mattress can’t, you ask? An even funnier press release, quoted by RunnersWorld, gives the sordid details. In addition to boasting a “soy-based, all foam eco-core,” the mattress

…is clinically proven to relieve pain, promote quicker healing, boost the immune system, improve sleep quality, heighten athletic performance and increase oxygen levels in the body by 29%.

Sounds good, but if it’s not going to boost my IQ and cure cancer, I’m not buying.

How fast do I have to walk to get fit?

THANK YOU FOR VISITING SWEATSCIENCE.COM!

As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

***

To count as exercise, walking is supposed to reach a “moderate” level of intensity, where you use about three times as much energy as you would lying on the sofa popping Cheetos. So how fast is that? According to a study by researchers at San Diego State University, it’s between 92 and 102 steps per minute for men, and between 91 and 115 steps per minute for women.

That’s assuming, of course, that you live in a home with a picket fence, a dog, and 1.4 children. Still, even if you’re not perfectly average, the researchers are comfortable drawing general conclusions:

We believe that these data support a general recommendation of walking at more than 100 steps per minute on level terrain to meet the minimum of the moderate-intensity guideline. Because health benefits can be achieved with bouts of exercise lasting at least 10 minutes, a useful starting point is to try and accumulate 1000 steps in 10 minutes, before building up to 3000 steps in 30 minutes.

So if you’ve got a pedometer (and I have the impression that pedometers are the “random branded freebie” most in vogue these days), now you know what to do with it!